WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Much depends on the first launch of the new Vulcan rocket by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
A successful launch from Cape Canaveral next week will allow ULA to close a significant backlog of missions worth hundreds of millions of dollars and establish a competitive base with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
And it could prove vital to the two US aerospace companies’ plans to sell their joint venture.
“It’s a very nervous time for them,” said George Sowers, former ULA chief scientist who played a key role in the creation of Vulcan. “This really is the future of their business.”
The first mission is a highly anticipated milestone after months of various delays in the latter part of Vulcan’s development and following a test incident last year with a Vulcan upper stage booster. ULA CEO Tory Bruno said Vulcan performed well in recent ground tests.
The mission checklist includes carrying a lunar lander that aims to make the first soft landing on the Moon in the United States in half a century. The rocket will for the first time use engines supplied by Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin.
The Vulcan launch also comes at a time when Boeing and Lockheed, which formed ULA when their rocket programs merged in 2006, are seeking to sell their joint venture, according to three people familiar with the negotiations.
These talks were a complex and long-term process for which the launch of Vulcan could have crucial implications, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
ULA declined to comment on possible negotiations, although Bruno previously said his company could be ripe for an acquisition.
Boeing and Lockheed declined to comment.
Vulcan’s first launch, scheduled for 2:18 a.m. ET (0718 GMT) Monday, is the culmination of a years-long development effort stemming largely from ULA’s need to replace its Atlas V rocket current. That rocket’s engines, imported from Russia, drew criticism from lawmakers, leading to its planned retirement.
The retirement of Atlas – as well as Vulcan’s other rocket, Delta – will leave the 200-foot (60 m) high Vulcan to handle dozens of lucrative missions and serve as the company’s sole challenger to the reusable Falcon 9 SpaceX.
Vulcan’s first mission will send a privately built lander from space robotics company Astrobotic to the Moon. But the launch itself will also serve as the first of two certification flights required by the U.S. Space Force before Vulcan can fly the Pentagon’s satellites.
Space Force is a primary Vulcan customer – the military branch in 2020 selected ULA’s Vulcan and its retired Atlas V to launch 60% of the Pentagon’s missions through about 2027.
Priced lower than its predecessors, at around $110 million per launch, Vulcan will seek to grab market share from the Falcon 9, which is priced around $62 million per launch. SpaceX’s cheaper flights have eroded ULA’s dominance over government satellite launches over the past decade.
Vulcan will also compete with Blue Origin’s upcoming New Glenn rocket, which uses the same engines as Vulcan.
Negotiations to acquire ULA have been underway for more than a year, with dozens of companies, including Blue Origin, expressing interest, the sources said.
Blue Origin did not respond to a request for comment.
The rationale and timing for Boeing and Lockheed’s sale of ULA are unclear. But significant changes have taken place in the U.S. space industry since the creation of ULA in 2006, when it was created to dominate government launches and satisfy some commercial demand from the then-nascent satellite market.
Growth in the commercial market has been slower than expected, said Richard McKinney, an aerospace consultant and former director of the Air Force’s space acquisition unit until 2007. “But it looks like we’re there now .”
Amazon’s planned Kuiper Network is expected to generate crucial launch revenue for ULA.
That gave Vulcan a multibillion-dollar backlog of about 80 missions, split equally between government and commercial customers, Bruno said.
The development of Vulcan and ULA’s abandonment of its Atlas and Delta rockets have made it difficult to estimate the company’s valuation, but analysts estimate it could be between $2 billion and $3 billion.
Boeing and Lockheed each have their own competing space units. Lockheed, among other activities, has ventured into building lunar rovers and made strategic investments in ABL Space, a small startup that plans to build larger rockets in the future.
Boeing’s space program has struggled, primarily with its long-delayed Starliner astronaut capsule, which competes with SpaceX’s more established Crew Dragon. Problems with the development of the Starliner have cost Boeing some $1.5 billion since 2014.
New ownership could allow ULA to innovate beyond the launch business in ways its parent companies weren’t willing to allow, said Sowers, ULA’s former chief scientist.
“The company charter was fixed and it was very restrictive,” he explained. “They’re always competing and they can’t agree on anything. We weren’t allowed to innovate.”
(Reporting by Joey Roulette, editing by Ben Klayman and Rosalba O’Brien)
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